Note: This article will discuss in some detail the storylines of various franchise entries.
However, what’s interesting is how what is ultimately the epitome of diegetic music is used in relation to on-screen action, and how the two strands of the franchise – singing and action – interact in different entries. The article will essentially be three distinct sections highlighting the main full-length TV entries of the franchise (SDF Macross, Macross 7 and Macross Frontier), and discussing how the central elements of a Macross series interact within them.
Part 1 – SDF Macross
The Pilot: Hikaru Ichijo / The Singer: Lynn Minmay / The Aliens: The Zentradi
SDF Macross most strongly separates the music and action plots and places the action largely at the periphery in doing this. While the protagonist, Hikaru, is a fighter pilot, his role in many of the main battles is secondary to his more experienced wingmen since he has less experience and skill. This is compounded by the fact that SDF Macross is a series for a good portion of its length about avoiding combat; humanity is on the back foot for almost all of the story, and after the peace settlement is still in an awkward position of having to essentially be an occupation government against a technologically superior enemy, with attendant issues of insurgency.
Because of this, the role of culture and music especially is less simplistic; it is one of many aspects of human life and society that appeals to the alien Zentradi, and is ultimately just a commodity. The singer central to the story, Lynn Minmay, is established as being in an atypical position; a morale-boosting figurehead for humanity and an emissary of peace but ultimately little more than a producer of mass-produced pop music – something the series does emphasise. Her music is almost entirely used diegetically in-setting; soundtracks to films, performances in concerts – and when it does coincide with action, the two still remain discrete. The music is one thing; it may be having an effect on the fight, but the pilots are another.
This adds up to SDF Macross being a series where the entire military aspect is secondary – it is about the lives of soldiers, and their personal relationships, but the action is routine and distant. If anything, this makes the series probably the most “military” of any franchise entry – the soldiers do their job, some die, and they return home to their girlfriends and private lives, and face the attendant difficulties of balancing the two. On the other side, the main plot is about Hikaru growing up and realising who the right woman for him is – to a soundtrack of Minmay’s music. Since one of the leading characters is a singer in a setting where there is little entertainment, their music comes to define the story because it is so prevalent.
Part 2 – Macross 7
The Pilot: Gamlin Kizaki / The Singers: Nekki Basara and Fire Bomber / The Aliens: The Protodevlin
Macross 7 takes an interesting approach to diegetic music; it integrates the music into its storyline as a plot point that transcends simple singing by giving its “power” (touched upon in SDF Macross in how pop-as-a-commodity was just another tool of imposing human culture on the Zentradi) a physical form. Protagonist Basara finds he has “Song Energy” inside him which manifests as a way of damaging an alien species physically and breaking their mental will. He spends much of the series oblivious to this, but singing anyway because he wants to; the A- and B-plots are switched so that the vast majority of the story is about singers and their private lives, with the soldiery peripheral and ultimately useless. Again, diegetic music pervades throughout, even during combat sequences, but there is a distance between music and action. Basara sings for himself, and doesn’t care who hears. It’s, if anything, the opposite of Minmay’s role in SDF – she was a singer with a captive audience and her relationship with fame was a key plot point. Basara doesn’t even care if anyone listens at first but will sing until they do and any other power this has is secondary to him (be that personal fame or saving the world).
There is less distinction between music and action in Macross 7 by definition, because Basara is both a pilot and a singer and sings on the front line as a personal challenge. The A- and B-plots are being forced together and the result is awkward and unpopular, as would be expected; Basara interferes with military operations, forces his opinions on everyone and at times actively endangers himself and others because he sticks to his principles of not fighting, just singing. Because it is made so clear that the music is diegetic in nature, that the exciting soundtrack to the fight sequences is being played similarly obtrusively to the characters in-setting and this annoys them and has a power over them, the result is curious. At times it is comic, as with the episode Fleet of the Strongest Women – a self-aware parody of SDF Macross where a group of Zentradi encounter Basara’s singing and are in a matter of minutes reduced to screaming fans, but at other times it’s a major point of drama within the plot.
Part 3 – Macross Frontier
The Pilot: Alto Saotome / The Singers: Sheryl Nome and Ranka Lee / The Aliens: The Vajra
It is hard to say if the music in Macross Frontier is even diegetic at times; while it is made clear within the narrative that instances of singing within the episodes are in-setting occurrences (as with the example of Ranka singing in the shopping centre in a previous article), and this is often distinct from the military plot spatially as in SDF Macross, there is a strange sort of choreographed effect for the viewer; the fights, supposedly separate entities from the music, are shown to play out in time to the music.
That what is clearly diegetic, in-setting music is also informing the visuals of the series, unacknowledged by the plot, is certainly linked to the idea that the characters of the two singers have some connection with the aliens (which becomes a plot point later and is integral the final fight) – the aliens’ behaviour is influenced by the presence of song (as shown by how every time a concert occurs, it is followed by an alien attack in a sort of perversion of a recurring plot point in Macross 7 and SDF) but the fight choreography goes a bit beyond this. It is possible to argue that entire fights in Macross Frontier are tied to the pacing and progression of supposed in-setting music – or that the music has been written as soundtrack music first and foremost. The integration of music reflecting on-screen action in the form of a traditional film soundtrack within the setting also as diegetic music (which is supposed to be used in quite the opposite way, not reflecting the action but simply naturalistically) is quite disconcerting.
It is going beyond Macross 7‘s playing with the idea of the diegetic music being forced upon the action (and using it often as a source of humour or drama) by challenging the viewer’s role; the viewer has got used to, over two Macross series, music being integral to the action in some form (be it Minmay singing as an ambassador, or Basara turning villains good with his guitar) but Frontier is almost rejecting this in its TV form. The Frontier films play more interestingly with the idea, but the TV series ends in the expected way, with a big fight in which both the singers and the pilots get their acts together, team up and save the day with their combined power. Yet the whole is a more cynical and less naturalistic marriage of the two, building on the idea of the series that singing can control the enemy and using this to have the music define – not complement – the action. At the climax of Macross 7 Basara simply does what he has always done – sing. He flies around, singing, and this has an effect on the enemies. Frontier has its two singers on a stage on the prow of a battleship, at first fighting each other with music and then performing an exciting duet bringing the whole series’ soundtrack together as the pilots fight in time to this. It’s thematically fitting, but I feel a move away from the way in which prior entries in the franchise used diegetic music and considered how it could be used naturally in a story both about singers and soldiers – and a move away from diegetic music as a whole. While Frontier has its singers perform on stages in-setting, the music does not feel as strongly part of the setting, but more part of the soundtrack.