Among the most interesting, and at the same time the most if not concerning but question-raising, aspects of the Macross franchise is the interplay between “culture” and war. In the original Super Dimension Fortress Macross “culture” was exactly that; artistic endeavour, leisure activity and consumer goods as pillars of cultural power exported to a warrior race (who one could read as savages should one wish, possessed only of the urge to conquer and destroy until a “civilised” species tames them) in order to uplift them. This is one of the things the TV series does significantly better than Do You Remember Love, the very good film retelling of the story; in Do You Remember Love, it is music – an alien song found in the ruins of a precursor race’s city – which divides the invading armies and allows mankind to decapitate their fleet and save the world. In SDF Macross it is a slower, less clear-cut process; the alien Zentradi are won over to mankind’s side in part through music but also through the simple experience of living a “human” life. Even after this the process of integration is gradual and fraught with resistance; while SDF Macross is flawed in its storytelling it raises a number of interesting questions and handles a large topic in a relatable way.
As the franchise progresses, I believe it is fair to say that “culture” is superceded by “music” as the nature of the conflict changes. Macross was about the Zentradi, who did not understand “normal life”, being shown there were activities other than war and ways to live other than strict gender segregation. Macross 7 had one man’s music be the thing which won over aliens who sought simply to drain humans’ “anima spiritia,” or life force. Basara, the most carefree (to the point of stupidity and obnoxious bloody-mindedness) person in the setting is so dedicated to his passion for song he is the thematically perfect vessel for overwhelming the aliens with all the life force they need. Macross Plus does not really engage with the idea in the same way; it is the camaraderie of war that forces its warring pilots (a Zentradi and a human) to overcome their conflict and fight a force using “culture” for evil. Not having seen Macross Zero I cannot comment on it, but turning to Frontier music becomes a tool, a communication method between man and inscrutable bug alien which is used (within the series as a television program) as a strange hybrid of diegetic and soundtrack music. The music is presented as diegetic, but at the same time the action is choreographed to it, a strange metatexual effect. Thematically, the music – especially in the Frontier films – is at its most apposite and yet eye-opening. A song like Koi no Dogfight (Love’s Dogfight) is not simply visually marrying war and sex by being used to choreograph a fight but in its very lyrics (and the visuals of the concert, with a fighter-jet on stage) doing so. Macross is a setting where “love” through the lens of popular music has become inextricably linked to war, and by the “end” of its timeline the music is reflecting its warlike use.
This is retreading old and established readings of the franchise, but it provides a lead-in to what Delta, the newest entry, does. Delta is, if one wants to strictly read it as homaging past franchise entries, a thematic mixture of Macross II and 7. From the first episode (all that has aired to date) one can gather the following. A faction is using some kind of music to turn ordinary citizens insane and driving them to commit acts of violence (somewhat similar to Frontier‘s use of Aimo, or the actions of MII‘s enemy), an effect only countered by “good” music sung by an idol group (like Fire Bomber). In order to stop culture preventing war, an enemy faction is trying to use its own fighter-jets to attack the idols. On the surface this is another example of singing being an adjunct to military force to launch a double-headed attack on savagery; the military disarm and neuter the enemy, and the Walkure idols “calm them down”. Yet it is with this I have issues. The “traditional” Macross attitude was that dispassionate military force had to be tempered with a passionate civilian voice. Basara hated violence and never fired a shot. Minmay was resolutely civilian (and Kaifun vocally pacifist). Even in Frontier, Sheryl and Ranka were used by military agents but the climax of the story saw them a voice of reason – more so in the films, where musical intercession denies the audience an all-action climax with dozens of Macross ships and the most powerful planes in the franchise. By Delta‘s first episode the idols are intrinsically military; they have their own special bodyguard unit, they have military technology in the form of shield drones, and their concert is a close-knit affair of tactical singing (as absurd as that sounds) with close air support.
To me this feels a betrayal of Macross. That is the sort of passionate language I try and avoid using in criticism, but I feel that it is a significant (if understated) thematic departure that is framing Delta very differently from the outset. Macross II showed a dystopian Macross where music is weaponised by both sides of a conflict, and in the end this ended badly. Walkure in Delta being so closely aligned with the military – another set of weapons to be deployed against insurrections caused by an enemy using mind-controlling music, with a song called Love Halation The War which is as sexually militaristic in its lyrics as Love’s Dogfight – loses the fine distinction between culture and warfare as tools of uplift and outreach. SDF Macross showed that mankind would have inevitably lost its war with the Zentradi, but was able to make peace not just through the power of song but through (in a more charitable reading than post-colonial alternatives questioning whether a “peace” earned through exportation of mass culture and consumer goods is cultural imperialism) the presentation of an alternative. The actions of civilians helped win over an enemy looking for an alternative to war. Macross 7 continually showed the failure of force of arms (and the close linking of culture and war via the artificial, manufactured pop of the Jamming Birds) and it was people stopping to listen to the carefree, apparently stupid Basara that saved the world. By Delta this is so routine within the setting the military controls the culture. Walkure are immeasurably popular, producing mass culture people know across space, but at the same time are literal mouthpieces of the military.
Obviously very little of Delta has aired. This kind of prediction may prove unfounded, such is the risk of making readings based on extracts. On the other hand a series’ first episode must in some way present themes, form a foundation on which the story will build, and from how Delta opens it is very clear that beneath the homage and the superficiality it is framing the culture-war interplay differently to its predecessors. I am reminded of my initial response to Iron Blooded Orphans, which presented themes initially of camaraderie and the “brothers in arms” feel of a paramilitary unit versus “traditional” family, and of privileged voices seeking to become more socially aware; these initial impressions drove me to watch and see how they paid off. Macross Delta is opening with what is very clearly a setting in which characters have learned lessons which seem to me the wrong ones from the rest of the timeline. What interests me is whether or not this will come back to be a theme.