Saturday, November 22, 2014

SuperSoundtracks #8: Robotech: Macross & Daft Punk

For a little over a year in the early 2000s, I lived and worked in Tokyo, Japan. At a train transfer on my commute home there was a department store that had on its sixth floor a store called Hobby Base: Yellow Submarine. This store (and others like it in Japan) was awesome but while visiting I was always drawn back to the mecha models, especially those I identified as belonging to Robotech. So for WGTB's SuperSoundtrack #8 I'm going to focus on Robotech: Macross and what I think is the best track of the 2013 hit album by French electronic duo Daft Punk

The Cover of the Robotech Role Playing Game by Palladium Books.
Robotech was one of the earliest mecha-based Japanese programs to be consumed in large numbers by Western audiences. The whole thing started when Jim Rocknowsky, a product director for the US company Harmony Gold, discovered three Japanese programs: Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Calvary Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada and decided to licence and merge them into one 85 episode saga, combining remarkable science-fiction visuals with mature and often very personal stories. Upon getting the licence Harmony Gold's president, Frank Agrama, set about  assembling a team that would make this Japanese story enjoyable for Western audiences. This wasn't easy and included not just dubbing the dialogue, but also finding skilled actors to bring the characters to life, writing an appropriate musical score and tying these three desperate stories together into one plausible back story. The first of the three parts or Robotech would become known as the The Macross Saga and is the one I'm most familiar with.
Image from Comico's Robotech: The Macross Saga #13 (August 1986).
The story went as follows: In the year 1999, humanity was not doing well. Global war was ravaging the planet and it was against this backdrop that astronomers discovered an alien spacecraft heading towards Earth. When the alien ship eventually collides with Earth, it ends up on the fictional Macross Island located in the south Pacific. Miraculously, the ship survives and remains intact, which spurs forth a human effort to reform our ways and soon afterwards a United Earth Government is formed. Simultaneously, a team of researchers and scientists arrive at the island to investigate and learn from the alien ship. 

Image from Comico's Robotech: The Macross Saga #5 (August 1985).
Over time, Macross Island grows from a sparsely populated island to a bustling hive of humanity. Macross City becomes its metropolis, which grows up around what becomes known as the Super Dimension Fortress One (SDF-1). By 2009, it's decided that humanity will launch the ship and command is given to a Frenchman named Captain Henry J. Gloval. His First Officer is a woman named Lisa Hayes and a leader of the robot-fighter aircraft that defends it is Commander Roy Fokker. During the launch ceremonies, a young hotshot pilot named Rick Hunter crashes the party, but his actions are also interrupted when the Zentradi, the previous owners of the SDF-1 arrive to reclaim their property. The Zentradi are a warrior race of green giants who are genetically bred for fighting and when they arrive the First Robotech War begins!
Roy Fokker and Rick Hunter. While not brothers in a biological sense, Rick would call Roy his "Older Brother" and much of the early Macross story centred around Rick going from talented young hotshot to mature military commander -- much of which was the result of Roy's death. Image from Comico's Robotech:The Macross Saga #5 (August 1985).
The humans make a valiant effort to defend themselves and Rick Hunter soon finds himself in a Veritech fighter, the mainstay of the SDF-1's fighter wing, itself a piece of "Robotechnology" which was inspired by the SDF-1. In the heat of the battle, it becomes clear that while the Zentradi have both greater technology and numbers, they also want their ship back and this means using restraint when fighting the humans. In the course of the battle, the humans hyperspace jump to Pluto, and then begin the voyage home, harangued by the alien invaders and isolated from their home planet. 

The SDF-1 transformed. The choice of word is intentional. From Comico's Robotech:The Macross Saga #5 (August 1985)
The faux-technology of Macross was the centre-piece of this part of Robotech and was quite cool. On humanity's side, there was the Veritechs. There was a number of different models of these fighters but the key element to them was they were spacecraft that could transform into a "Battloid" robot, which stood 42 feet high. If the technology sounds familiar to the Transformers line of toys, this is because both were designed by Shōji Kawamori. Indeed, both the Veritechs and Optimus Prime (and many of the early Autobot) molds came from this prolific designer. Indeed, the Autobot "Jetfire" was a VF-1 Valkyrie Veritech fighter. 

Vertiechs and battlepods in Comico's Robotech: The Macross Saga #13 (August 1986)
Eventually the two sides fight to a standstill and when the Zentradi leader, an alien named Exedore, seeks peace with Gloval, it is made known that a new Zentradi fleet is en route to Earth. When it arrives, the SDF-1 is destroyed after it rams the enemy flagship. Earth, however is left in ruins and the remains of the SDF-1 land in the middle of North America, where they once again form the basis for a new city. With this, the Macross Saga ends. 

While Robotech was at its most visible as a cartoon show, it would go on to spawn a multi-media empire with a role playing game, novels, toys and comic books: all of which provided young audiences with multiple means to devour this fictional universe. The comic book licence has its own interesting story. Starting with a short two-issue DC Comics mini-series, which used the model sets made by Revell and not the Japanese anime, it was the Pennsylvania-based Comico that published an initial graphic novel and then the ongoing series based on the Marcoss, Masters and New Generation series. In 1989 the licence went over to a Malibu Comics imprint named Eternity Comics, who published black and white stories until the licence moved over to the obscure Antarctic Press for only two years in the late 1990s. The licence would bounce back to DC Comics in the early 2000s, this time to the Wildstorm imprint in a effort to reboot the entire line. Then, in late 2013 (and partially reviewed on this blog) DC and Harmony Gold licenced it to Dynamite Entertainment where it was featured in a Robotech/Voltron crossover. 

Cover of Random Access Memories by Daft Punk.
For SuperSoundtrack #8 I've decided to pair Robotech: Macross with a song off the 2013 Grammy Awards Album of the Year Random Access Memories by the French electronic band Daft Punk. Now you may remember the massively popular single Get Lucky with its electronically fused funk beats and Pharrell Williams' catchy lyrics, but that isn't the chosen song.   

Daft Punk is a musical duo consisting of Frenchmen Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter. Their first album Homework (1997) was a club staple in the late 90s, but I started to love them when I purchased their 2001 release Discovery, which was featured in the Franco-Japanese anime film Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem. Human After All (2004) wasn't a favourite but Random Access Memories has more than made up for it. They also wrote the soundtrack for the 2010 film Tron: Legacy. The robot personae has been a feature of the group from their earliest days.    
No, the honour of SuperSoundtrack #8 goes to the track named Touch. Like its sibling, Get Lucky, Touch has funk-infused beats and melodies, but it's also orchestral and space-like/electronic in places as well. Because of this, it really plays to the operatic aspect of Macross and at times, the lyrical refrain "If love is the answer you're home" along with the electronically-fused, cosmically reaching melodies, which themselves are followed by a beautiful arrangement of strings, makes this track the best on an already outstanding album. The lyrics are provided by the versatile Paul Williams, and it's so good, that although it's over eight minutes long, it seems to finish quite quickly. Have a listen and see for yourself if you can picture Roy Fokker, Rick Hunter and Lisa Hayes doing what they can to save humanity. 

Robotech wasn't the first Japanese cultural export to find its way to North American shores, nor will it be the last. Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Battle of the Planets, Mobile Suit Gundam, along with live-action exports like the Power Rangers have also been very popular here. (And this isn't even including original Japanese concepts like the Diaclone that were, um, transformed upon reaching North American markets.) But Robotech was special and remains, for me at least, a first contact point with Japanese sci-fi culture; something I would enjoy very much when living and working in Tokyo. Thanks for reading and if you have any suggestions for a SuperSoundtrack please leave it in the comment section below.

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