Non-Seduction of the Innocent

I’ve come to notice that there are few female characters in anime with seductive personalities.

There are characters who are physically good-looking, characters who are proud of their appearance, characters who are in love, and characters who try to get closer to the person they’re interested in. Rarer is the type of female character whose mannerisms ooze fiery passion in such a way that their sexuality is more than simply their physical design.

Here’s a character who I think qualifies: Fuwa Aika from Blast of Tempest.  Good-looking but not to an incredible degree, you can sense in her interactions with her boyfriend Yoshino not only the way she focuses all of her charm on him, but also the strong physical and emotional response that Yoshino has to Aika’s desire. It’s difficult to capture this impression in a single image.

Another lesser example comes from a few years ago in Macross Frontier. The character of Sheryl Nome is more sexy than seductive normally, but in one scene both she and Ranka Lee are trying to out-sing each other in order to demonstrate their interest in the protagonist Alto and why he should choose one over the other. In that moment, both Sheryl and Ranka exude strong desires which fill the space they’re in.

In thinking about this, I’m reminded of an old post on Heisei Democracy, in which Shingo states that lips aren’t moe. The argument is that lipstick denotes an assertive un-moe character, while lips in general are a sign of active sexuality which is counter to moe’s ostensible image of innocence. I don’t quite agree with that premise, and my discussion of characters isn’t limited to just those who would be considered “moe,” but I do feel like there’s something relevant in Shingo’s argument. There’s this rough idea that moe characters, even when they are attractive or overtly sexualized, at most tend towards conflicted expressions of desire (e.g. tsundere) or displays of innocence even in less “innocent” moments. If you then move the idea to being about the difference between sexual/seductive, maybe it’s not so unusual for seductive characters to be a rarity.

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Four Kings Meet in a Room to Discuss the Meaning of a Punch Made out of Rocket

If you were to ask someone informed what the most influential giant robot series of all time were, they’d probably give the following answer: Mazinger Z, Mobile Suit Gundam, Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, Neon Genesis Evangelion. Isn’t it amazing then, when you realize that all four of these series have had recent revivals, as if the Forces of Anime have deemed this period of time to be the celebration of all things humanoid and mechanical?

Mazinger Z has the new Imagawa-directed Shin Mazinger Shougeki! Z-Hen, which takes elements of the entirety of Mazinger lore and its remakes (as well as much of Nagai’s works) and incorporates them into a single cohesive story that explores and brings to light the thematic elements which make Mazinger Z itself such a prominent part of anime’s history. As the first Super Robot to be piloted from within, and the first to declare its attacks with passionate yells, and then in 2009 to make such a show feel fresh and original, I think we’re all the better for knowing it exists.

Gundam received a new series set in our timeline (AD) in the form of Gundam 00, as well as a return to the Universal Century timeline that few expected after all these years in the form of Gundam Unicorn and Ring of Gundam. There’s also the massive celebration of its 30th anniversary in real life, which includes life-size Gundams, weddings on life-size Gundams, and musical concerts. Whichevery way you prefer your Gundam, whether you’re an old-school curmudgeon or someone who came in from Wing or SEED, there’s a message for you, and that message is “Gundam is Amazing!”

Macross Frontier meanwhile celebrated the franchise’s 25th anniversary. Unlike Gundam, Macross doesn’t just get animated series updates every year, so to have a full series emerge and capture much of the energy of the original Macross while still being true to its current era of anime made Frontier a joy to follow. The most interesting departures, so to speak, were the extremely current-era character designs (in contrast with the classic 80’s Mikimoto ones), and the ways in which the concept of  the “pop idol” has morphed over the course of two or three decades.

Evangelion is in the process of having its story entirely re-animated and retold in a series of movies which seek to do more than just cash in on an already perpetually marketable franchise, though that’s not to say that they don’t do so at all, and instead also transform the story in dramatic ways, from adding entirely new characters to subtle changes in the characters’ personalities and actions, everything is moving towards the idea that things will Not Be the Same. It’s also the newest series of the bunch, and thus the “freshest” in the public consciousness.

What’s also interesting about this is that when you step back and look, you’ll see that each of these series has influenced the one after it in very powerful ways, whether indirectly or otherwise. Mazinger Z set the stage for the super robot formula, which led to a young Tomino Yoshiyuki working on super robot series, then getting tired of them, eventually leading to Gundam, the first series to really push the idea of giant robots as tools, and to advance the concept of a war with no real winners that existed in series such as Daimos and Zambot 3. Macross is an evolution of this “real robot” concept thanks to a staff that fell in love with Gundam years ago, and now includes real-world vehicles transforming directly into robots, a much greater emphasis on character relationships, and an optimistic spin with the idea that the power of songs can influence two warring cultures and bring them closer to one another. Evangelion’s director Anno Hideaki worked on Macross, and the influence of both it and Gundam and even Mazinger Z permeate throughout its episodes and general design. The “Monster of the Week” formula made popular by Mazinger Z finds its revival in the form of the mysterious “Angels” in Evangelion, but the story and the monsters are merely part of a philosophical backdrop. Characters are entirely the focus of the series, and these children are so intrinsically flawed that some do not enjoy them as characters.

And now it’s like all of these series are sitting in the same room, feeling the weight of their years of fame, and standing shoulder to shoulder, eager to see what happens next in the world of giant robot anime. And then sitting in the same room is Tetsujin 28, which nods its head in approval.

Are giant robots still capable of capturing imagination and transforming world-views after all this time? I think so, and I think it’s happening as you read this.

Best Anime Characters of 2008

Once again, there’s only two categories. I would include a “BEST DEATH” category but I’d feel bad accidentally spoiling events from anime in such a dramatic fashion. So without further ado, I present…

THE BEST ANIME CHARACTERS OF 2008

BEST MALE CHARACTER**

Graham Aker (Mobile Suit Gundam 00)

It’s not easy being a rival character, and it’s even less easy when you’re in a Gundam series. Despite the odds, Graham Aker exemplifies the best in rivalry in a way that is rarely seen in anime.

Graham isn’t some rebel who can’t be contained, or a neutral figure with ulterior motives. He’s no Char Aznable, but that shouldn’t be held against him. He’s loyal to his allies, respectful to his enemies, and approaches every situation with unmatched fervor and determination. His skills as a pilot make him one of the most significant threats on the battlefield. Even when he’s severely outmatched on a technological level, Graham can never be counted out. He’s a rival character who actually has the  potential at all times to end the life of a main character without any convenient plot devices to cheapen his victories. Graham Aker has presence unlike any other.

Graham Aker is a thinking man’s beast. He’s passionate, but doesn’t let passion blind him from the truth. In the end, Graham’s most important trait is that he is simply unafraid to be himself, though he may change his name and then make everyone call him by said name. That’s just Graham Aker, baby.

BEST FEMALE CHARACTER

Sheryl Nome (Macross Frontier)

2008 was rife with good female characters, and unlike last year it was very difficult to choose just one. The more I thought about it though, the more I leaned towards Sheryl Nome.

Sheryl is attractive in a way that harkens back to 1980s anime series while still possessing a modern 2000s flair. She’s confident yet vulnerable, going from being on top of the world to carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, and along the way all you want to do is cheer her on and be her support. But she doesn’t need your support, because she’s Sheryl Nome and nothing short of death will stop her from moving forward. Even when she’s hit rock bottom nothing can ever truly dampen her spirit.

There are some disagreements among the anime community in regards to recent anime and its treatment of female characters. Sheryl Nome is a compromise between these schools of thought. Actually, “compromise” is a misleading word, as there are no concessions made with her character. She has all of the strengths with none of the drawbacks. Sheryl Nome shows everyone, old and new, fan and detractor, what it means to be a strong character where strength does not preclude vulnerability or vice versa.

Final Word

Picking the “best” characters is never easy, and in the end, the concept of “best” as used in this sense is just an illusion. These aren’t even my favorite characters of the year, but I felt they had much more of an impact on anime as a whole, in addition to being characters I’m very fond of. It’s also pure coincidence that both Graham and Sheryl are from Gundam and Macross respectively, two of the biggest franchises in anime that are also giant robot series. Or perhaps not, seeing as both series dared to do more with its characters than anyone expected.

**What this actually means is, “Best Male Anime Character of 2008 who is not Kenshiro or Raoh”

Sing a New Song, a Song of Generations: Macross Frontier

Note: While I’m not going to make it a requirement to read my previous episodes 1-13 review, I’d still recommend it before reading this one. There’s also minor spoilers for the other Macross series, but that’s kind of inevitable if you’re already watching Frontier.

Macross Frontier is the newest series in the Macross franchise, celebrating the 25th anniversary one of the most fondly remembered anime series ever. While not the first sequel to Macross, it is also the one that, for better or worse, tries the hardest to translate the emotions of the original Macross through the lens of today’s anime.

The original 1982 Super Dimensional Fortress Macross asked its audience many things. What are you willing to do for peace? What potential does humanity have for growth? What role does culture play in understanding one another? Taking place in a time when the world had just recently discovered peace after years of war and turmoil, the people of Earth are confronted by an alien race of giants whose only purpose in life is to wage war. Though these “Zentradi” were superior to the humans in nearly every way, the one area in which they had no knowledge turned out be both their downfall and their redemption: culture. Introducing the Zentradi to concepts such as love and sorrow through the emotional singing of pop idol Lynn Minmay, in time the Zentradi began to co-exist with humans. Thanks to technology that allowed the Zentradi to shrink to human size (a process called miclonization), some even married across species and bore offspring.

Nearly 50 years later, the two races have integrated to the point that it would not surprise a person if most of their friends were at least part-Zentradi. In that time, the people of Earth have begun to actively colonize outer space, discovered the dangers of artificial intelligence, and encountered a species that was more spirit than flesh. The Macross Frontier is the 25th colonial Macross-class ship, entrusted to venture through the galaxy to find a planet with a hospitable environment on which humans could live. Amidst its travels, the Macross Frontier is attacked by a race known as the Vajra. Unlike the Zentradi who battled with the human race nearly five decades earlier, the Vajra are inhuman, insect-like creatures, with an unreadable hive mind. Reasoning with them is not an option.

Three people aboard the Macross Frontier hold special significance. One is Saotome Alto, a student and former actor whose feminine looks allowed him to pass for a female when performing. Due to the attack by the Vajra, he decides to become a pilot of a Valkyrie (the humanoid-into-jet transforming robot symbolic of the Macross franchse) to repel the threat. Another is Sheryl Nome, a famous pop idol originally from the Macross Galaxy colony who happens to be holding a concert when the Vajra invade. Stranded aboard the Frontier, Sheryl uses her talents to try and keep hope alive for the distraught inhabitants. Last is Ranka Lee, a girl with no memories of her childhood. Ranka is a huge fan of Sheryl, and is inspired by her to pursue a singing career of her own, though there may be more to Ranka’s singing than simply talent and enthusiasm. Alto, Sheryl, and Ranka all become friends but as time passes their feelings change, both towards each other and towards the battle against the Vajra.

Ranka’s older brother is a tough, no-nonsense Valkyrie pilot who tries to hide his job from Ranka to keep her from worrying. Alto’s fellow pilots include a mechanical wiz, Luca, and a ladies’ man, Michael, whose playboy tendencies infuriate his childhood friend, the Zentradi pilot Klan Klan. Klan Klan, herself a highly skilled pilot, suffers from the fact that miclonizing her also regresses her physical age, something which Michael pokes fun of her for mercilessly. Grace is Sheryl’s manager who also recognizes talent in Ranka. Nanase is Ranka’s friend and biggest supporter of her career, and also the target of Luca’s affection. These are among the many supporting characters of Macross Frontier. They intertwine with the primary characters and themes of the show while still making their personal stories feel important.

Macross Frontier’s character designs may lack the subtlety of Mikimoto’s (the original Macross character designer), but Ebata Risa and Takahashi Yuuichi clearly worked hard to tie visual design with personalit. They make it easy to recognize every character even if you barely remember them. I wouldn’t say they’re better than Mikimoto’s designs, but they at least reflect current concepts and conventions of character design without seeming stale in the process. The animation can go off-model every so often, but the same thing happens with pretty much every other Macross series. Macross Frontier also has some of the best use of CG ever in an anime TV series. Never before have 3-D graphics been so well-integrated into both the every-day environments as well as the epic, space-rending battles which so emphasize the significance and destruction of war.

Romance against the backdrop of war is the driving force behind the Macross franchise, and Macross Frontier is no exception, though it takes particular care to put everyone through periods of happiness followed by periods of duress, both mental and emotional, in order to reveal their true characters. How does humanity handle interacting with a race so unlike anything familiar that it is impossible to humanize them? How far can Alto run away from his past? How different are humans, really, from the Zentradi’s old ways? How does the confident Sheryl handle being shunted out of the public spotlight in favor of Ranka? Where do people stand in the struggle between freedom and security? Why does Ranka sing?

Whereas romance and war are the bones and muscles of Macross, music is the blood and nerves. Music is one of the most important aspects of the Macross franchise, so much so that Macross Frontier saw it fit to have two main characters as singers. Music is power. Music is what brought giants to their knees and peace after war, but Macross Frontier teaches us that even the benevolent power of music can be twisted in unexpected ways. The songs of Sheryl and Ranka perhaps say more about their characters than any lines of dialogue. Sheryl’s songs exude power and confidence with just a hint of vulnerability, while Ranka’s songs reflect the highs and lows of her emotions. Their songs are markedly different from the humble pop of Minmay, or the rocking ballads of Fire Bomber, toeing the line between human and inhuman, between authentic and manufactured, but ultimately leaving one with the sense that this is is new, that this is truly the music of 2047.

Macross Frontier is not just a modern Macross. It is not just a new Macross, nor is it simply the new Macross. From its music to its storytelling to its characters to its questions, Macross Frontier is New Macross. It is a series which carries on the francise’s 25-year-old spirit and accurately invokes this current age of anime and society.

The Sexiness is Galaxy

Macross Frontier seems to have a certain portion of the Macross fandom in a dangerous state of conflict, as they see both good and evil in this 25th Anniversary celebration of Studio Nue’s most famous work. Fanservice, of the T&A variety, fanservice, designed to get men (and possibly women) in a tizzy, it’s the subject of much discussion on forums and chatrooms. Some people feel it would be a better show without things like Sheryl’s exposed bosom or Klan’s alternating forms.

I think it’s a mistake to though say that the fanservice in Macross Frontier necessarily detracts from the show, as much of the fanservice is done with a sense of style and taste, and it’s not easy to mix with taste with tastelessness. I think the absolute best example so far, in so much that it got me particularly hot under the collar, is the hospital scene with Ranka and Sheryl competing with each other by singing to Alto. No actual T or A was present, but just the implied message of the two pop idols vying with each other for the affections of one man makes that scene perhaps the most sexually charged scene to date. Now that’s what I call fanservice.

And then there are all the people who wish they would get away from relationship drama and go back to more fighting. Don’t listen to them.

I Can Clearly Hear It, the Galaxy’s Song: Macross Frontier 1-13

If one were to describe a Macross series, there would be many recurring concepts: war, transforming fighter jets, idol singers, love triangles, culture. However, if one were to describe the feelings conveyed by each series, theywould be hard-pressed to find too many similarities. The original Super Dimensional Fortress Macross feels different from Macross Plus, which in turn has little in common with Macross 7 or Macross Zero thematically. They all exist in the same universe, but they could not be further from each other without turning into Gaogaigar and Betterman.

So it can be mighty confusing when I say that Macross Frontier, or at least the first half of it, feels like Macross.

Macross Frontier is the 25th anniversary celebration of Studio Nue’s Macross, and with it comes a return to the original in terms of pacing, characterization, and the specific balance of love and war and the way they intertwine. Nowhere is this more evident than in  the main love triangle of Macross Frontier.

The “love triangle” has been a constant part of Macross since day one with Hikaru, Misa, and Minmay. Still, I have always found the original love triangle to be the best because it truly seemed like a battle for the heart, a battle whose landscape is transformed radically by war and the circumstances surrounding it. Macross Plus is less about developing love and more about resolving an existing one, Macross Zero’s is wrapped in its own lore, and Macross 7’s you can hardly call a love triangle when it involves a guy who likes a girl, a girl who kind of likes both, and a guy who doesn’t care. In every case, the romantic tension is lacking, a tension which I believe factors significantly into the success of the original.

Macross Frontier’s three main characters, Saotome Alto, Sheryl Nome, and Ranka Lee, recapture that tension. Saotome Alto is an amateur fighter pilot and former theatrical actor. Sheryl Nome, the “Galactic Fairy,” is by far the biggest music idol of the day. Ranka Lee is a young girl working at a Chinese restaurant who aspires to be a pop idol. Mankind’s encounter with the Vajra, a violent alien race so powerful it can easily avoid an Itano Circus, brings Alto, Sheryl, and Ranka together and ties their destinies together.

It all sounds very familiar, but I am in no way saying that Macross Frontier is treading old ground, or that it’s some sort of lazy throwback to time immaterial (the 1980s). Already from my small and deliberately basic description, there are some things which are new and refreshing, particularly in this current age of anime. Unlike previous series, the main characters are all involved in performance in very different ways. There’s also the fact that we have not one but two idols with many years of experience of difference between them, with Sheryl being both Ranka’s surrogate mother (Ranka herself losing her parents at an early age), and her conflicted rival for the affections of Alto. Just like in the original Macross, I cannot bring myself to hate either girl or Alto, and also like in the original, I cannot seem to decide who I want to side with at the moment. I like this feeling. It’s one I’ve enjoyed before, and yet it feels so new.

Macross has always used its continuity as merely a backdrop, unlike say, Robotech, which thrives on it. However, whereas the latest incarnation of Robotech is marred by this devotion to continuity, Macross Frontier’s many, many nods to the past, a live performance of My Boyfriend is a Pilot and a car radio playing Planet Dance being just two examples, fit right in without overwhelming the viewer with backstory. History lessons are welcomed, but are not absolutely necessary, so what you end up having is a series which is progress not for the sake of progress but for making something worth watching and worth remembering.

The suspense is so great I may deculture my pants.